January 26, 2013, 6:04 PM — Hackers working under the name of the Anonymous hacktivist collective hit a U.S. government website on Saturday, replacing its home page with a 1,340 word text detailing its frustrations with the way the American legal system works and a threat to release "secrets" gathered from U.S. government websites.
The website of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which establishes sentencing policies for the federal court system, was offline for much of Saturday as a result of the attack.
"This morning's cyber attack on the Commission's website brought it down temporarily, but the site now has been restored," the commission said in a brief statement issued on Saturday evening. "The Commission's publications, training materials, and federal sentencing statistics are again readily accessible to visitors to the site."
The site and timing of the attack was not random, according to the message that replaced the home page before it was taken offline.
"Two weeks ago today, a line was crossed," the message read. "Two weeks ago today, Aaron Swartz was killed. Killed because he faced an impossible choice. Killed because he was forced into playing a game he could not win -- a twisted and distorted perversion of justice -- a game where the only winning move was not to play."
Swartz committed suicide in New York on Jan. 11, apparently over an upcoming trial on computer intrusion, wire fraud and data theft charges that carried a maximum penalty of 35 years in jail. The charges stem from allegations that Swartz stole millions of scholarly articles and documents from the JSTOR database with the intention of making them available online at no charge.
His suicide sparked outrage among the hacktivist community, much of which blamed the prosecution of the case and potential penalties he faced as directly contributing to his death.
"This website was chosen due to the symbolic nature of its purpose -- the federal sentencing guidelines which enable prosecutors to cheat citizens of their constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial, by a jury of their peers -- the federal sentencing guidelines which are in clear violation of the 8th amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishments," the message on the hacked website read.
The message went on to say that the group had infiltrated numerous U.S. government websites and gathered material it judged would be embarrassing if released.
"We have enough fissile material for multiple warheads. Today we are launching the first of these. Operation Last Resort has begun..."
The message didn't reveal the nature of the "secrets," but the hackers made available on the site a multi-part encrypted file that was said to contain them. It's impossible to determine what's actually in the files, which were named for judges on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The message went on to demand a number of reforms to the U.S. legal system.
Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org